Teaching Kids to Have a Grateful Heart
Thanksgiving is right around the corner, and chances are, between endless plates of turkey and pumpkin pie, you and your child will discuss what you’re thankful for this season. I personally love that we Americans have a built-in holiday that centers on gratitude, right on the cusp of the holidays. After all, the human heart is not inherently grateful, and Black Friday fist fights and tramplings in post-Thanksgiving news reports confirm this. How ironic that just the day after Thanksgiving, young and old alike quickly switch gears from counting blessings to counting how many presents they hope to have under the tree! Although celebrating a holiday dedicated to giving thanks might be a good start, if we want our kids to be truly grateful, we need to cultivate gratitude year round.
What’s Not to Love
It turns out gratitude has a lot more value than just wiping out a case of the “gimmes.” The attitude is also good for your physical health. Proverbs 17:22 says, “A happy heart is good medicine,” and research from the Greater Good Science Center agrees. Their findings conclude that gratitude not only blocks toxic emotions but also helps its ascribers have higher senses of self-worth and be more stress resistant. Just like taking your vitamins and getting plenty of sleep, practicing gratitude is a choice to be implemented daily in order to reap its full effect. And, thankfully, an appreciative spirit is the very best kind of contagious. Those who choose to be joyful, in turn teach and inspire others to be grateful in the process.
Gratitude Is a Muscle
Every time you instruct your children to say thank you or show appreciation toward a kind gesture, you’re helping them build gratitude muscles. Baking a plate of warm cookies for the new neighbor is merely bench pressing those gratitude muscles. Writing a thank you card? Squats for those gratitude muscles. Making a homemade gift for Grandma on her birthday? You guessed it—a 5K for those gratitude muscles! Every opportunity your child has to say thank you, whether verbally, through service or gifts, is a means to strengthen thanksgiving. The beauty of a grateful heart is that it begets even more thanksgiving that much more easily.
A thankful heart offers the gift of perspective. Human nature often says circumstances need to change in order for us to be truly happy. Gratitude flips that view on its head and helps its followers discover that through being thankful for what we have, we find we already have what we want most in life. This isn’t a Pollyanna way of living. “When we cultivate an attitude of gratitude, things don’t just look better—they are better. Thankfulness feels good, it’s good for you and it’s a blessing for the people around you, too,” Ocean Robbins says in his article “The Neuroscience of Why Gratitude Makes Us Healthier.”
An Rx for Entitlement
Have you ever noticed that children don’t need to be educated in how to grumble or complain? It just seems to come naturally! Entitlement often is the result of a life that’s self-centered. One of the best ways to shake self-centeredness is to cultivate the virtue of service. Service is the hands and feet of gratitude. It goes beyond saying thank you for a specific thing to showing appreciation for no other reason other than the delight of being kind.
Ways to Build a Grateful Heart
Commit to Writing Thank You’s. Early scribbles and drawings (or simply tracing around a toddler’s hand and signing his name inside) can be turned into thank you cards. Retailers like Target and Hobby Lobby offer pre-scripted thank you cards for the younger set, allowing children to fill in the blanks such as who the card is for, what they’re saying thank you for and a spot to sign their name in closing. As children get older, consider getting them their own stationery and stamps reserved for writing thank you notes. When birthday parties and Christmas roll around, keep a running list of who gave what so your child can thank appropriately each gift giver soon after.
Do a Community Service Project as a Family. Rake an elderly neighbor’s yard. Clean litter at the local park. Or build a shoebox full of goodies for Operation Christmas Child. Look for ways to serve together, especially in capacities where your child can fully participate. Not only does this make your children more aware of how they can be a blessing, but it’s also a great way to make family memories.
Join the Secret Service. Call a family meeting and tell your children that they will be joining the “secret service” (doing good deeds anonymously for a family member for a set amount of time). Children can conjure up all kinds of ways to do nice things for a sibling, parent or grandparent, such as secretly cleaning out the car for Mom, surprising Big Brother by making his bed or leaving a sticky note of encouragement for Dad on the bathroom mirror. Draw names and see how long each person can secretly do good before getting caught! The beauty of focusing on service instead of secret Santa presents is that this can be done all throughout the year, not just at Christmas!
Just Say No. Establish healthy limits on the things you allow in your home and the amount of activity on your calendar. Saying no to some things makes a later yes that much sweeter.
Keep a Gratitude Journal. A cheap spiral notebook fits the bill, but if you want a beautiful book reserved for recording your blessings, consider getting something like an official gratitude journal (my favorite one is published by Chronicle Books). November is a perfect month to break one out and start listing what every member of the family is thankful for.
Set an Example. Encourage your spouse and your children, telling them what you appreciate about their personalities, as well as what character traits they display well.
Lauren Greenlee breaks out her gratitude journal every November and gets teary eyed looking back upon old entries. She writes and raises three boys from her Olathe home.